Inclusive engineering: What can mechanical skeletal robots do for us?


Creating social environments and performance with the help of engineering tools, design, research and thinking to improve the productivity of individuals who are out of work or unemployed due to physical disability (such as amputation or spinal cord injury) or neurodiversity (such as autism) and to help them integrate into society and return to work has been a potential research goal of Vanderbilt University and other research institutions for decades. The proximity of Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering to the world-class Vanderbilt University Medical Center allows engineering researchers and medical researchers to work closely together, greatly contributing to the advancement of the field.

The field is often categorized as rehabilitation medical engineering (whose research focuses on the repair of physical injuries). We propose a reclassification for it and other similar fields. These behaviors are designed to empower individuals with physical and neurological impairments to help them return to work and contribute to society. We categorize these behaviors into a new field of engineering called “Inclusion Engineering”.

While Inclusion Engineering covers many existing fields such as mechanical engineering, robotics, computer science, artificial intelligence and systems engineering, it looks similar to other approaches, but is not the same in substance. For example, the field of Inclusion Engineering and its close equivalent field of Universal Design both involve the application of technical and design principles aimed at ensuring that people with disabilities can access buildings or use facilities such as computers and automobiles without barriers.

In contrast, inclusive engineering has a more ambitious goal. It strives to utilize and utilize the full range of an individual’s abilities, not just to provide them with accessibility. It is also broader in scope; it addresses both neurological impairments and physical ailments.

Inclusive design is a paradigm that integrates design and architecture, which emphasizes the diversity of users and attempts to involve the broadest group of people. However, it is quite different from inclusive engineering, although the research work of inclusive engineering researchers also includes studying the diversity of technology users.

Thus, inclusive design can be considered a component of inclusive engineering, and the two are not equivalent. The emergence of the emerging subdiscipline of inclusive engineering reflects the gradual social trend toward inclusiveness. Specifically, quantitative research increasingly supports the view that the positive impact of organizations, systems, and societies is improved when people with different behavioral capabilities are fully considered, their various needs are supported, and their differences are recognized.

We note that in the steel industry the term “Inclusion Engineering” refers to methods for optimizing the action of non-metallic inclusions in steel. We believe that the use of the term “Inclusion Engineering”, as we have defined it, can always be distinguished from the use of Inclusion Engineering in the steel industry by its context.

Example of Inclusion Engineering

The goal of Inclusive Engineering is to develop, develop and deploy engineering devices and create environments that enhance the productivity of individuals with physical impairments and neurodiversity to help them integrate into society and lead full lives from birth to retirement.

One of Vanderbilt’s primary research efforts in inclusive engineering is to help people with physical disabilities. In the United States, 47.5 million adults have limited mobility or physical disabilities. The medical costs for this group amount to $350 billion annually, or 23.6 percent of total U.S. adult medical expenditures.

Physical disability can result from spinal cord injury or diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (e.g., Stephen Hawking), Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Reduced mobility leads to reduced body movement, which in turn leads to reduced physical ability and other health problems, whereupon the body’s mobility is further reduced. This is a vicious cycle that repeats itself day after day in the lives of patients and their families.

Vanderbilt University applies state-of-the-art robotics to address the problem of human mobility (including smart prosthetics and wearable assistive robots for amputees), and its research efforts have been at the forefront of related technological developments, such as artificially intelligent rehabilitation-powered exoskeleton robots applied in the post-injury phase with the goal of restoring human physiological function and moving away from the permanent wearing of exoskeletons. Assistive robots can continuously help people with chronic mobility impairments to perform daily activities.

Anti-fall robots provide protection in the event of a human fall, preventing the body from serious injury caused by the fall. Vanderbilt University has licensed its IndegoTM exoskeleton robot, which it designed and manufactured, to Parker Hannifin, an industrial company that has established a division to manufacture and market exoskeleton robots. The robot has received marketing approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Vanderbilt’s exoskeleton research builds on more than a decade of research into robotics, intelligent systems, control, sensing, testing and refinement, and independent evaluation. The research is led by the Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology, and future goals of the study include improving the naturalness of device motion, reducing device weight and size, and reducing device cost.

Another research focus of Vanderbilt’s Inclusive Engineering aims to address the needs of individuals with neurodiversity (e.g., those on the autism spectrum). Approximately one in six people have a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning that more than 50 million people in the United States have the disorder; more specifically, one in 54 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder.

Individuals with neurodiversity often have difficulty performing everyday tasks that may be essential for adults to have the opportunity to engage in productive work, such as learning to drive a car or performing socially demanding tasks. On the other hand, such individuals may be able to capture visual features more acutely than neurotypically developed individuals, which forms the basis for the ability of neurodiverse people to perform specific occupations, provided their insights can be supported.

Vanderbilt University has conducted extensive engineering research on the capabilities that support neurodiverse individuals, for example, designing virtual reality-based driving simulators designed to teach driving skills to adolescents and adults with autism, in addition to building and studying visual image-based artificial intelligence systems to better understand the way neurodiverse people process information and experience the world around them, and in addition They have also designed a distributed computer-based virtual space that allows multiple users to interact with each other and with virtual objects to ensure flexible, safe (and not easily achieved by children with autism) social interactions. Much of the future research in this area will be conducted under the auspices of the newly established Frist Center for Autism and Innovation.

Some of Vanderbilt’s Inclusive Engineering research efforts are shown in Figure 1.

Inclusive engineering: What can mechanical skeletal robots do for us?

Figure 1. Examples of inclusive engineering research efforts at Vanderbilt University (images via Vanderbilt University): (a) researchers are optimizing the lower body exoskeleton; (b) a driving simulator developed at Vanderbilt University to help young people on the autism spectrum learn driving skills, with monitors on the participants monitoring their physiological responses and attention to the road


Perhaps the greatest impact of inclusive engineering is the intangible benefits it can provide to individuals with disabilities in terms of personal independence and economic independence. Inclusive engineering can also provide significant economic benefits to society by converting costs into value. For example, there are 47.5 million adults in the United States who have limited mobility or severe physical disabilities, and the annual cost of health care is approximately $350 billion, while only about 0.02% of the population currently uses exoskeletal assistive devices.

If lighter, more natural and smarter exoskeletal devices were developed and their use could reach 10%, the cost savings could be as much as $35 billion. The average cost of raising a person with an autism spectrum disorder in the United States is $1.2 to $2.4 million, with the highest costs being for in-home treatment, supported living facilities, and loss of personal productivity. The situation in the UK is similar. Assuming that 1 in 54 (or 1.37 million) of the 74 million children under 17 in the U.S. have an autism spectrum disorder, the full cost would be $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion.

With the help of inclusive engineering research, 10% of individuals would no longer need financial support, which would save over $200 billion. Inclusive engineering not only reduces the economic costs associated with the disease, but also provides society and the economy with a previously underutilized workforce, transforming costs into value. As such, the potential social impact of inclusive engineering is enormous.

In Summary

Inclusive engineering is an emerging sub-discipline under engineering. It aims to design systems and structures for individuals of varying physical conditions, mental states, and intellectual levels to assist them in participating in work or social activities. The key characteristics of this new sub-discipline of engineering are twofold: intentionality at all stages of development (from conception to design, development and production) on the one hand, and continuous learning to ensure that its adaptive features fully meet its inclusive purpose on the other.

The central characteristic of inclusive engineering is, of course, inclusiveness, which represents not only a fair moral responsibility in an age of diversity, but also has important economic implications. For students of the history and philosophy of science, inclusive engineering represents a shift in social form. As Kuhn describes, philosophical breakthroughs traditionally do not occur in isolation, but rather in contexts that allow for reconsideration of interpretation and constructive adaptation.

We are entering the third decade of the 21st century in an environment that rejects any form of difference and no longer tolerates that which is not “right”. Thus, this emerging subdiscipline of engineering breaks with tradition by arguing that product design or built environment design that excludes diversity is fundamentally incomplete. Furthermore, it argues that the challenges posed by diversity of capabilities in the current environment need to be addressed with adaptive tools that allow people to participate successfully in a wide range of economic and social activities.

Above from: Peter T. Cummings, Philippe M. Fauchet, Michael Goldfarb, Martha W.M. Jones, Maithilee Kunda, Jonathan B. Perlin, Nilanjan Sarkar, Keivan G. Stassun, Zachary E. Warren, Karl E. Zelik. Engineering for Inclusion: Empowering Individuals with Physical and Neurological Differences through Engineering Invention, Research, and Development [J]. Engineering, 2021, 7(2):141-143.

This article is from WeChat: Engineering (ID: engineering2015), authors: Cummings et al.

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